ROUND THE ALE-BOWL
three times a year, perhaps more, men gathered in the
main room of the house, or in the temple hall, to hold a
sacrificial feast, a blot.
period of the sacrificial feast stood out among the
other times of life as something lofty, holy and stern,
happy and perilous. It comprised both wild rejoicing and
determined earnest. And that which at these times gave
men's souls their spaciousness and tension was the
presence of the highest. Then the gods, or the powers,
as the Northmen put it, took entire possession of the
home, uniting men and women under the responsibility of
supreme holiness. The holy place spread out over all the
would fain have known a little about the ceremonies
wherewith men carried the holiness of the sanctuary into
the house, and placed the room under the unrestricted
dominion of the horg, -- but all memories are buried,
and the mediæval dislike of paganism and its works lies
like a stone above the grave. We have our suspicions, as
to the participants treading the way to the holy place,
or the blot-house, taking up the divinity in limbs and
garments. We read also, in one place, of a private blot
– that held by Ljot, when the witch tried to make her
son invulnerable against the enmity of the sons of
Ingimund – and here, it seems that the young man
concerned in the act of sacrifice was led between the
homestead and the blot-house in a special dress of red.
In this little family festival there are several
irregularities, which make us hesitate to call the
promising youth and his enterprising mother as evidence
for the procedure of honest folk in the feasting halls.
The saga writer looks askance at the proceedings in the
small house that stood a little way off by the gate, as
witch-practice of a suspicious character, and he has
more than Christian right to his opinion, for secret
blot is more than half witchcraft. But it is doubtless
equally undeniable that the blot was formally kept
within the traditional forms. The way Thord Gellir went
at the commencement of his manhood's work must have been
trodden many a time, and in all probability at the very
time of the great feasts.
there was much of the heathen doings that could be
rendered harmless, nay, even sacred to the Lord, and
from the moment the party is assembled in the room, the
old blot lies open to us.
can safely say that the feast opened with a solemn
consecration, declaring peace upon the participants. A
feast and a law meeting were related in their innermost
being, in their dependence upon the highest frith, and
from all we can gather, they were allied in form. In
Iceland, the priest “consecrated” the law-thing, and
the effect was at once apparent in the thing-men's
augmented holiness, which made any injury done to them
twice as costly an affair as misdemeanour at other
times. In the spirit of the law-thing, we find in the
Grettir saga, Hafr consecrating the games held at
Hegranes, where the outlawed robber comes in disguise to
seek admittance, and there is still, in Hafr's words,
something of that rush wherewith the spirit of holiness
swept down upon the people, bringing all to utter
silence: “Here I set peace (grið) between all
men, all chieftains and brave yeomen, all the common
host of men able to bear arms and fight . . . for
pleasure and sport, for all delight as for their seat
here and their going home . . . I set peace for us and
our kin, friends and allies, women as well as men,
thrall and wench, serving men and masters alike.”
though nothing of what is offered us in these lines can
be directly applied to the sacrificial feast, the
formula gives a breath of that spirit in which a meeting
of men opened.
the words of the declaration filled the ears of those
present, their eyes were undoubtedly full of the reality
of the blot; it stood a little way apart in the filled
vessels. Beasts were slain for the feast, animals great
and small, huge cauldrons of meat were set on to boil,
and we know from the experience of Hakon Æthelstansfostri
that the eating of the sacrificial meat was a necessary
condition for participation in the blessing. But there
was something else, and something more than this to
occupy eyes and mind. In the dwelling place of the gods,
Sæhrimnir, the boar that never grew less for all the
slices cut off from his fat sides, formed, as we know, a
costly centre; but in all his fat splendour he lacks the
majesty which shows in the fact of having a history.
There may indeed have been myths about his past, but at
any rate the origin of the meat did not move the
curiosity of after-times to the same degree as did the
refreshing drink that rejoiced the minds in the hall of
the gods. In the intentness wherewith the myth dwells on
the rich past of the mead, those people have indirectly
shown that despite all their joy in the flesh that
simmered in the kettles, they looked forward to
something happier and stronger. It is about the filled
horns that the holiest part of the feast is centered.
it is the ale bowls which dominate in all thought of
feasting together shows through the mere names of the
banquets. A homecoming was celebrated by a welcoming
ale, and when the guest left he was sped on his way with
a parting ale, life commenced with a christening ale,
and passed by way of betrothing ale and bride ale,
drinking ones' wedding, to the arvel or burial ale – a
series of “ales” to fit each particular occasion. It
is with good reason that the frith which embraces the
parties at a feast is called ale-frith, and the feast
day mungátstiðir, i.e. ale days.
North-European brotherhoods, or guilds, plainly show
their Germanic origin in their dependence upon the
banquet, the sharing of food, as the uniting,
solidarity-inducing element, and despite all the wise
care of the Middle Ages to have something solid on the
table, it is soon evident from the formulæ and symbols
of these boon companions that drink is a more important
item in their spiritual economy than food. The drinking
party really provides the formal setting for their
entire organisation. The meeting is called “the
drinking”, to hold a meeting is always called “to
drink a feast”, even where the object of the assembly
is something more practical. “The feast was celebrated
and drunk with force” is a regular form of entry in
the minutes after an eventful general meeting. The
brother present is denoted, in contrast to an absentee,
as one who “drinks the feast”, and the time reckoned
by the “first time the feast is drunk” or “before
second feast-drinking”; a matter is postponed “to
next feast”. The new brother is placed before the head
of the guild and drinks his mug of entry to whole and
true brotherhood. We understand then, that drawers,
butlers and tasters occupy a prominent place in the
organisation; their dignity lies not in the fact that
they act as useful brethren, taking care that the body
as indispensable companion of the spirit, is encouraged
in its service; in reality, they are the corporeal
expression of the idea of brotherhood.
to these formal memories we have our direct
communications anent the prominent place of drinking at
the old cult festivals. In the traditional picture of
the feast at Hladi, it is Earl Sigurd's imposing figure,
sacrificial horn in hand, which forms the centre-piece;
and when the new regime grumbles at the heathen
assemblies, the illwill circles plainly enough about
this “ale” consecrated to the gods' the arch enemy
of Christ resided in the cup. A promise in need referred
to goods and ale. When an Icelandic party lay
weather-bound off the coast of Norway and for good
reasons feared the visit of the king on board they vowed
great drinking feasts to the gods; Frey was to have the
ale if the wind blew towards Sweden, Thor or Odin if it
were easterly, we read. And when the word blot
passed out of the current vocabulary on account of it
strong associations of heathenism, samburðaröl
(club-ale: a feast to which each of those partaking
constituted a share) shoots up in its place as the
technical term for the Yule feasts, both in the heathen
form and in the Christian continuation of the old
solemnities. For in Norse Christendom, drink was
recognised as the essence of worship. The church
organised the old need of blot in order thus to rule
over it and make it subject to the church itself; and
with that wisdom which seems to follow the Catholic
Church during the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages,
the spiritual lawgivers understood not only how to
respect the inevitable, they had the higher insight
which told them that one annexes souls by annexing the
needs of the souls as one's own commands. The formula
wherein the taking over is declared stands, as a
document of culture, far above all the accounts of
antiquarians, because the fall of the words shows the
sureness with which it strikes exactly upon the
essential. Three peasants at least – runs the command
– shall bring together their festival ale, one measure
of ale for husband and one for the wife on each
homestead, and hold a feast upon the holy eve to the
honour of Christ and of Saint Mary, and if a man live so
far away on an island or in the mountains, that he
cannot get to his neighbours, then he shall himself make
an ale the size of three. Neglect is first to be paid
for with a fine, and then be made good by a drinking
party post festum; but if a sinner continue in
his dryness three long years in succession, then king
and bishop are masters of his house, and he must find
himself a country outside Norway, where the godless may
was not only the Northmen who gathered about the ale
vessels when they felt themselves impelled by the gods
to hold a sacrifice. So also did the Franks. A man of
high standing, Hocin, invited Chlotachar the First and
his courtiers, with the holy Vedastus, to a feast. The
festival ale stood set out in the middle of the house,
but out of regard to the mixed character of the company
it was divided into two camps, one part comprising the
ordinary brew for Christians, and thereto some
“consecrated in heathen wise” for those who held by
the old mode of life. Fortunately for us, the spirit
moved the holy man to attend that feast, or the brew
would never had entered into the account of the saint's
life and good deeds; for when he saw the pagan drink he
made the sign of the cross upon it, so that the vessels
burst and the heathen were converted. In the life of the
missionary Columbanus, there is mention of another
vessel, instinct with the same explosive force. This
time, it was among the Suevi that a holy man found the
assembly holding a feast; they sat about a great vessel
“which in their tongue is called cupa,
containing about 26 measures, and it was filled with
ale, which they would consecrate to their god Odin.”
The saint blew the vessel to pieces, making manifest to
all present that the devil was in the cask, lying in
wait for Suevic souls. Whatever the people really said,
and the saint did, the pious biographer must be right
about these ale-vessels and their central position at
the feasts, for such an abnormal form of worship the
clerical chroniclers could certainly not have imported
from any source but that of reality.
the Christianity which conquered our southern kinsmen
seems to have lacked the proper eye for the power of ale
bowls to further piety, or at any rate, it saw its way
to make good Christians without them; but even so, the
descendants of the Alamanni and the Suevi never quite
forgot to assemble for edification around the cupa.
Here and there the Germans give us to understand that
they knew well the longing for St. Gertrud's minni, when
the mind was restless and needed company, or sighed for
comfort on departure, for reconciliation, for blessing
generally. Johannesminni, Johannessegen, is the name of
another good drink, the effects of which have been
preserved by cleverly adding a touch of the Christian
bouquet; when there is a wedding, men let the priest
consecrate amorem Sancti Johannis in the church
to the bridal pair, and he willingly makes a little
speech anent the blood of Christ and the wedding feast
at Cana; he cannot, however, entirely transform the ale
to wine, since the Johannesminni must be drunk from pure
wordly vessels. Elsewhere, the Johannestrunk has
preserved its social character as a power to unite men
in circles of frith, when the neighbours seat themselves
in a host about the board in the open air and drink to
good neighbourliness. There is no Germanic heathendom to
be found in the blessing of the Johannesminni – the
Christian faith of the Lord's Supper and the ancient
custom of offering libation have permeated the drink;
but we may still doubtless assume that the actual manner
in which the blessing is here obtained has its roots in
ancient home custom.
combined testimony of joyous brethren and stern saints
will not prove to us that the drinking blot was ever at
any time the only Germanic form for worship; it merely
indicates that the drink, throughout the whole Germanic
region was, right down to the last age of heathendom, at
the centre of the old cut, and there it probably stood
ever since the gods revealed to our forefathers the
powerful secret of ale. It was evidently natural for the
contemporaries of Tacitus to assemble for a drinking
about in the sacred grove, and we are thus hardly going
too far in concluding that the mighty drinkers which the
Germans were had practised the art under the auspices of
the gods themselves.
When Vedastus stepped in as a guest among the Franks, his eye was at once caught by the great vessel. It stood in the midst of the circle; and a similar prominent place must have been occupied by the Norwegian skapker, from which the sacred drink was served out. The power which evinced itself in such uncanny wise to the man of God made itself also distinctly remarked in the North, for beside this skapker stood the shoe into which a person adopted had to tread on admission to the clan. The vessel was sacred, and its place was sacred and powerful. But the feast also called for pure drinking cups in the hand, horns which in point of holiness answered to the blessing they were to bear around among the company. Beyond all doubt, the everyday bowls, like all new-fangled inventions, were excluded from the high days of festival. The feast had to be drunk in the venerable cattle-horn – something of this indeed, is indicated in the antiquarian observation as to Olaf Kyrri's breach with the past; prior to his reformation of the court ceremonial according to modern ideas, we are told, it was the custom of kings to drink from the horns of animals; but after his day, the king and his distinguished guests were served in beakers. When the house had been consecrated and adorned for the feast, the finest drinking vessels of the household were brought forth; and we may glean some idea of the reverence shown to these horns, and what men thought of them, when we note the position they occupy in the legends, right down to our own times. They formed part of the family treasure as pledges of life and luck, they revealed hidden thoughts and plans; they had a personality which called for a proper name; and their handing down by inheritance through the clans was watched over with jealous care. Olaf Tryggvason had two pair of such horns, the Grims and the Hyrnings, the former of which he had once obtained in marvellous wise from Jotunheim. One evening at the time of the Yule feast, two men came to the king's court, both calling themselves Grim, and brought with them a pair of splendid gold-decked horns with a greeting form Gudmund of Glasisvellir. Gudmund was an individual whom Christians were loth to have greet them, and the heathen manner of the strangers also made itself plainly apparent when a drink, consecrated in Christian wise, was offered them; they vanished with a clap of thunder,; and when the lights were lit again, three of Olaf's men lay dead in the hall. The king, however, kept the horns. In this story – and adaptation of old legend – the admiration of the myth for the treasure and for its supernatural origin appears in conflict with the Christian inclination to tread the devil underfoot, and the legend has only half subdued the stubborn material. It shows, indeed, after all, as a glorification of the horn, declaring that wherever its deftly wrought ornaments gaped across the bench, men felt divinity issuing forth toward them.
At the commencement of the banquet, a row of small low tables stood in front of the benches, the food was served out on plates, and the guests helped themselves as long as they were minded. When all had satisfied their lust for solid food, the tables were removed, and then the drink began its round. So also in the feast above all feasts; at the moment when the horn came forth, the sacrificial feast was at its highest. A strict ritual regulated every single movement with the drinking horn. It was first carried to the highest in rank, the man who occupied the high seat, and when he had consecrated it, he drank to the next in rank, and so the horn went steadily on from man to man. On receiving it , one rose – Harthaenut was struck by apoplexy as he stood at his drink, and fell down dead with the vessel in his hand; throughout the Middle Ages, men held firmly by the good custom of showing reverence for the drink by standing. With a word expressive of wish and promise the horn was emptied, and on passing on to the next man, was again filled, that he might do his duty and pass it on. From man to man it has to pass, going round with the sun, none of those present being suffered to show preference for any particular companion at table; any attempt at passing by one's neighbour and drinking forward beyond him, amounted to an affront to the one so passed, and was a serious breach of the sacred law. And the link between them was not a table, but hand reaching out to hand; “the horn goes in the hands of men” is the true expression for a drinking party, and to set down the cup instead of handing it on to one's neighbour was a great offence. “If a man put the cup down instead of handing it to his neighbour where people are drinking, he is to pay according to ancient law one shilling to the master of the house, six shillings to the offended man and twelve shillings to the king” according to the Anglo-Saxon law of Hlotære and Eadric. This means, reduced to an older form, that the offender has sinned not only against his partner and the host, but also against divine authority.
Priscos has given a description of the rule for feasting at Attila's court, and a comparison of the Byzantine' account with northern sources shows plainly, not only that the great Hun ruler based his court etiquette upon Germanic models, but also that the ceremonial observed in connection with drinking was the same north and south of the Baltic. Priscos was invited, together with the other members of the mission, to a banquet given in their honour, and the first man they met was naturally the cup-bearer, who handed them a goblet which they were to drink off with a good wish, before sitting down. When the meal commenced, a servant appeared before Attila with a bowl of wine, he took it, and greeted his neighbhour; every man so accosted over the cup rose, and was not allowed to sit down again until he had take a mouthful, or emptied the cup and handed it back to the cup-bearer. Thus Attila paid due honour to each man in turn, by taking the cup and drinking to him with a wish for luck and good fortune. When at last the entire company had been thus favoured, the first dish was brought in . But after each course of meat, the same ceremony was repeated from one end of the hall to the other, and each time, the party had to empty the bowl standing, one by one.
Amid the festive spirit of the occasion several particularly marked cups were drunk – “minnis” as they are called in mediæval term. In these, the sacrifice is concentrated, and the anticipation of the banquet is at its utmost tension. The account of the famous feast of succession, which Swein Forkbeard held after the death of his father, suggests that in the old days, there were at least three main toasts at such a blot. True, the Fagrskinna only says that on the first evening when men were assembled at a funeral feast, they had to fill many cups “in the same way as with minnis nowadays”, and these cups were dedicated to the mightiest of one's kin, in heathen time, to Thor or others among the gods. At last the bragarfull – promise cup – was poured out, and on drinking this, the giver of the feast was expected to make a vow – and with him all those present – and having done so, sit down in the high seat of the departed. Snorri, on the other hand, gives a detailed and more precise account; he states, that on the first day of the feast, before King Swein stepped into his father's high seat, he drank his minni-cup and vowed that ere three winters were past, he would go to England and slay King Æthelred or drive him from the country. This cup all present had to drink. But thereupon, all had to drink Christ's minni. The third was Michael's minni, and this was drunk by all. After these, Earl Sigvaldi drank his father's minni and made his vow that ere three winters were past he would go to Norway and slay Earl Hakon or drive him from the country. After him, Thorkel, his brother, vowed to accompany Sigvaldi to Norway and never flee as long as his brother was fighting. Then Bui vowed to go to Norway in their company and stand up in fight without flinching against Earl Hakon, and thus one followed another in due succession.
Swein's arvel has shared the fate of so many good stories which history, out of due regard to chronology and textual criticism, has had to turn out of the house, or at any rate receive only as proxy for some unknown and more sober fact; but how much or how little these cups and vows are to be reckoned by writers of political history – they were doubtless a salient point in the imagination of the Middle Ages and earlier times. And even though the various authors may have lacked all authentic report of what took place at the court in that unforgettable year, they found no difficulty in giving a trustworthy picture of what might have taken place, for they had themselves taken part in funeral feasts to the memory of friends and kin. The discrepancy between the two versions is due to the difference of method. The description in the Fagrskinna is intended as a piece of antiquarian information regarding drinking customs of our forefathers; the saga writer has a delicate conscience in the matter of culture history, and endeavours to prevent his listeners from thoughtlessly applying their own ideas to ancient times. Snorri, on the other hand, describes the scene as a stylist and an artist, chiefly concerned with the dramatic element, and to him, Christ and Michael are as good as gods and kin. He writes more directly from his own premises, and therefore, we find embedded in his version a fragment of culture history, to wit, the mediæval adoption and adaptation of the ancient sacrificial rites. But this does not necessarily imply that the author of the Fagrskinna ousts Snorri as a witness to the past. The triple form so markedly emphasised in the Heimskingla was not created out of regard to style or dramatic effect; the guild statutes, which contain the result of the drinking cup's conversion to Christian custom, continued the sacred rite of ancient times in regard to table, and here again we find the triple chord, in such a manner as to produce a distinct impression of a convention rooted in ancient observance. In the Gothland Karin's guild, three “minnis” had to be observed: “Our Lord and brother's minni, Our sister and Lady's, and St. Catherine's minni.” The Danish Eric's guild had for its patron saints St. Eric, Our Saviour and Our Lady, while the Swedish Eric's guild mentions only St. Eric's minni, which is declared at the stroke of six, and All Saints' minni, on the stroke of nine. The Swedish St. Görans' Brotherhood succumbed to the mediæval temptation to enrol as many saints as possible in their heavenly guard; not content with Our Lord, Our Lady and St. Göran, they enlisted St. Eric and St. Olaf, as well as the Holy Rood, and all the saints together, besides St. Gertrud and St. Bengt especially. All nine are remembered in the cups, but three and three together, so that the minnis after all fall into a triad. These guild customs give the Heimskringla a certain weight, when, in connection with Earl Sigurd's blot feast at Hlada, it makes the feast centre about the cup to Odin for victory and power to the king, that the Njord and Frey for harvest and peace, and the Bragi cup with the minni for powerful kinsmen; even though we, on seeing bragarfull falsely interpreted Bragi's cup parallel to that of the other gods, may have some slight suspicion with regard to this highly departmental sense of order.
On the other hand, the Norwegian guild statutes are apparently unanimous in restricting the number of cups to two: The Onarheim's guild drinks Mary's minni and Olaf's minni, while the Olaf's guild, strangely enough, only mentions Christ and Mary, disregarding its own patron saint. And the form for Christian festival drinking in Norway which was granted the highest sanction of the church is also based on Christ and Mary as the object of the solemnity. As these forms are not designed to initiate proselytes into the mysteries of the cult, they do not need to tell everything, and we have not far too look before we find lacunæ where something or other may perhaps be understood which is not stated; even allowing for all possibilities, however, we cannot lose sight of the fact that two of the minnis are singled out for particular mention.
But to get their proper weight, these isolated toasts must be viewed against the background of the sacrificial feast, where minni follows minni in unbroken succession. Odin's and Frey's cups are the great minnis, being more important than all others, for the cup special, or toast, was not an exception in the ordinary course of drinking, but constituted the actual standard of form for all the drinking that took place. The horn on its round was the focus of the feast, each individual ceremony lasted until it has passed the whole way round, and the feast itself consisted in a repetition of the circular movement. “Many horns went round,” we are told, on that last evening at the court of the Gjukings, before Gunnar and Hogni set off on their fateful journey to Atli; and having learned this, all know that the feast of those bold men was a great feast, and lasted long. Therefore, Egil's saga could not have characterised the mighty blot at Atley more correctly than when it says: “Many a minni went round, and a horn should be emptied at every one.”
Wherever the mediæval records mention a feast, it is this very chain of minnis that is implied in the word, and so the amount of drinking allowed can be regulated by fixing the number of toasts. In the Middle Ages, kings and lawyers were busy arranging the lives of the citizens for them, prescribing what finery was proper to be worn, and how many days decent Christians were to carouse. The good Gothlanders were, at the time when their law was written down, under a taskmaster; there were rules for how much liquor was proper for a wedding, and what degree of dryness could be tolerated at minor feasts. On assembling at a wedding, the drinking of Mary's minni was the end of all drinking, but before it was brought in, the host could call as many toasts as he wished. This of course is practical expression of the view that the party may drink as much as it pleases until the inevitable moment when, according to the rule of ceremony, Mary was honoured by a toast, and then the drinking had to cease, no additional cups being allowed. By such principles, it is possible to regulate also the duration of a drinking bout, and its intensity, by providing that three minni cups, and no more, are to be drunk on bringing home the bride's portion.
Out from this stream of minni there rises again one particular cup as the cup beyond all others, the true core of the feast. Presumably, the “highest minni” of the Middle Ages goes back to the principal cup in the heathen drinking hall, either as a direct adaptation, or a s a substitute for something customary. In the guilds it is the divinity, either the chief god, Christ, or the local god, the patron saint, that receives chief honour. The Brotherhood of St. Göran with its arrangement into a triple trinity, finds room for the god and the goddess and the patron saint in highest minni, and this was drunk “especially with torch and trumpet”, i.e. in more festival fashion than the other toasts. At the banquets and Yule feasts held by the common people, men continued to drink the toast of God or the Holy Ghost, even after it had been found necessary to add a word of excuse to the Highest for offering him the honour due to him, and it might seem as if the toast before all others was just this one for Our Lord.
The feast did not terminate informally. It would be opposed to the character and purpose of the blot to let it flicker out like a dying candle. At the Swedish wedding feasts, the guests were handed a weapon-cup at the conclusion of the entertainment, the host at the same time handing them their weapons, which had been laid aside during the feast. The mediæval guilds kept to the old custom, and at times, the last of the three great minnis is made to serve as an amen. The statues of St. Göran put the matter as follows: “St. Bengt means leavetaking and good night.” After the three main toasts had been drunk, one should not inconvenience those who served at the table – unless all the guests were agreed that they were too comfortable as they were to break up the party; as one passage thoughtfully adds. When legislation came to regard it as one of its many tasks to guide people in the conduct of their feasts, the minni was made a kind of police full-stop to gaiety. In Gothland, when Mary's minni had been drunk, anyone was at liberty to leave; it being understood that good people would be well advised to avail themselves of this ceremonial valediction.
As long as the feast was an act of worship, all those taking part in it were necessarily obliged to remain for the whole of the function, if they did not wish to harm themselves and all their fellows there; and before leaving, they assured themselves that everything right and needful had been done, so that the party could disperse without prejudice to the blessing. The individual guest drank himself into the dark, and in the great weapon-cup there lay a final assurance that all the guests took with them the blessing. The Swedish law still hints at its religious meaning, when it prescribes that it shall be drunk from the same vessel as the guests had used for the wedding drink.
While the townsmen utilised the final toast for police purposes, the peasants sometimes turned it to account for promoting hospitable cheer; it might for instance be called in as an aide to the ready will, when it was a question of smoothing out the last crease in the jerkin. At weddings in Ditmarsk, they feast concluded with the drinking of the toast of the Holy Spirit, and the joint was forced down with a warning cry of “the Holy Spirit is at the door”; when all had to avow their impotence, and only then, the cup the Holy Ghost's minni was poured out with the wish: “May this be a glad year for you with the Holy Ghost.”
In the guild statutes, we see ancient tendencies and a new spirit working together, and the inner conflict between them has set its mark upon the words, so that enjoyment is often formulated as a duty, whereas in earlier times participation was at once an enjoyment and a necessity. The Middle Ages had need of the toast to create order, both as a means of ascertaining that the brother fulfilled their obligation – this is the ancient feeling – and as a preventive against their doing too much beyond what was demanded of them. When culture had grown so far out of the old system that the centre of gravity had come to lie decisively in the thought of Christianity, the moderating qualities of the toast would predominate; but the change in religious tone would at the same time dissolved the very power that had made the drink a means of restraining the exuberant hilarity of the brethren.
For him who would grasp the whole as a whole, and not squander his attention on mere details, the testimony of the guild statutes and the customs of the common people unite in a sufficiently complete picture of the blot-feast. The horn was the heart of the feast; the hours were held together and made a living whole by the horn passing slowly round from hand to hand. The life of the blot was concentrated in some great toasts in which holiness was strained to its highest pitch. These principal cups gathered the details of the blot into a festival rhythm, and it is possible that the mediæval tendency to find rest in a triple chord of minnis was rooted in an ancient respect for the triple as perfection, even though perhaps it might have been strengthened by Christian ideas. But the ceremonial suggested by these Northern authorities was not a pattern which must externally fit all times and places; rather it represents a system inwardly felt, which holds the ceremonial together. Within the framework of the principal toasts there must be room for a varied multiplicity of detail. All the solemn moments in the life of the clan, which we have learned in part to know from the social side, were sacrifices, blots, and the character and purpose of the meeting determined the relative weight of the various toasts. According to time and circumstances, this or that minni would be elevated to greater or less official importance. At the arvel, the promise-cup derived a particular significance from its emphasising the entering into authority of the successor; and his declaration of his life's programme threw its own light upon those who, having likewise made their vows, gathered about him and honoured him, either by making his cause their own, as did Bui with Sigvaldi, or by entering the lists against him, as did Sigvaldi with Swein. In the bridal house, the cup of contract would necessarily take first place as a condition for good fortune in the alliance entered upon, as also for the safe relationship between the two houses thus united under one shield. A feast of faith and alliance would be nothing without the cup of agreement – and thus each feast day had its own care. In the feasts of worship proper, it was luck in its supreme generality which determined the course of the proceedings, but it lies in the character of the family hamingja that it was dependent upon the actual, the “fate” of the clan.
The toast gave the blot feast its character. Uniting as it did all those taking part, it gathered the spirit of the whole company into one. And the all-comprising holiness residing in the company as a whole did not loose it hold of the participants, until the last cup of the blot was drunk.
At ordinary drinking feasts, the company would at a certain point break up into groups; friend drew friend forth from the general brotherhood of the festive spirit and drank himself nearer to his fellow. We se him, in the Icelandic sagas, stepping down the floor with his horn, drinking til móts with the other; that is to say, drinking half, and handing the rest in the horn to his comrade. Or those sitting side by side would turn towards each other and form pairs; in the Nordic, this is called drinking tvimenning, when men shared one horn together two and two, or now and then a man and woman together.
We may assume that the blot proper was carried out under stricter rules, and here, we can set certainty in place of mere assumption. In the period of the saga writing, it was still not forgotten that sacred feasts were denoted by the progress of the horn round the hall; the horn should be “borne around the fire,” we are told, that is to say, that only the sacred vessels were used, and these carried by the cup-bearer from man to man throughout the hall, then passing round the long fire and up along the opposite side of the hall.
At this point, woman contributed her holiness to the feast; the “ale-goddess” she is called in the scaldic poetry, and the name is rich in significance, being inspired by deep experiences. The immediate charm of a woman stepping the house-wife's way through the ale-hall is but a faint reflection of the majesty which woman's holiness and the holiness of an assembly shed on her in the eyes of those present. In reality, it is a description of a blot which lies in the verses of the Beowulf anent the queen handing her husband the first cup, and thence proceeding down the rank, from man to man, until she comes to the guest. “In man shall battle thrive, and deeds of arms, but the woman shall grow in favour among men; in the mead-hour of the house-earles greet firstly the prince, hand the horn to the king”; thus the custom of the king's courts is expressed in poetic conciseness, with the “shall” which denotes the normal course of life, and the lines may without exaggeration be called a part of the sacrificial ritual.
In the saga which tells of the homecoming of Olaf the Saint after his glorious expeditions abroad, it is noted a s proof of Sigurd Syr's magnificent hospitality towards his step-son, that he entertained him and his followers every alternate day with festive cheer, meat and ale, and let the horn go round in the manner of a great banquet, whether it were a holy-day or not. He made the day a feast. The more festive ceremonial included the richer fare, for when drinking minni, each man had the horn filled for his own mouth as often as it came to him.
But the feast demanded also co-operation of all those present every time one of them drank. As long as the blot was in progress, no one could let the cup life and go through a personal experience for a moment, whether in his own thoughts or in his own drink. The current of minnis must not be checked, and whether the cup were one for the whole company, or in honour of a single individual, whether it were bride-cup or parting cup, it was passed along a row of standing and blessing drink-fellows, the company attending in rapt anticipation. We know for certain at what time the Norwegian court was grown so modern that it superseded the slow and heavy older fashion and gave itself up freely to the pleasure of drinking. Before the time of Olaf Kyrri, it was the custom for the horn to pass round the fire in the hall, from the king to the next in rank and so on; but Olaf let loose personal feeling, and introduced a new mode, whereby each man might follow the dictates of his own conscience, and drink as he pleased. Among the common people this emancipation was long delayed, and when, for instance, a bride's guardian in Ditmarsk in the 16the century drank the bride to her betrothed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, all present did their duty by the action in drinking off a toast from the same vessel.
What was expected of a man in connection with the parting cup none can tell better than Thorstein Boejarmagn, who had been a guest of Geirrod, rule of giants, in Jotunheim, and had there seen people drink from the horn Grim. It must indeed be difficult to express in sober everyday phrases what took place between such mighty personages as Geirrod autocrat over all giants and sprites, and Gudmund of Glasisvellir; and we gain, from the author's endeavor to express the inexpressible, a lively impression that things generally were on a larger scale, more wonderful altogether, among the giants than in ordinary households of the North. When Grim is carried in, in its full breadth of majesty, the whole people of giants and goblins fall on their knees; they knew, of course, that their master needed but to bend his ear toward it in order to gain knowledge of the most secret of things. The horn first makes for Gudmund, as the highest in rank among the guests, the cup-bearer waits till he has emptied it, and then goes to the host. Before him, Grim is filled again, and Geirrod turns the point upward, the contents pouring like a wave of the sea down his throat. While the hero drank, he fixed his glance upon Earl Agdi, and it was now his turn to take a fresh filling; the poor earl did all that duty demanded, but was forced to draw breath twice in the process. “Age and manhood do not go together,” said Grim; for the horn had more than human understanding. The remainder of the company were not judged capable of such superhuman achievement, and were suffered to fulfil the law two and two. Our authority lets this parting drink embrace two other toasts besides both Thor's and Odin's cup, and the effect on us modern readers is not only that we come to regard Earl Agdi with a fellow-feeling that excuses much, but also that we suspect the author of having, like so many of his compeers among the late compilers of romantic stories, reconstructed the past a trifle too much per intuition. In one thing, however, he has the advantage of us; he knew the customs of his own time, and even where his imagination runs most freely, he cannot go beyond its conceptions. He sees the whole affair as a series of minnis; and he is awed by the divine power residing in the horn which makes it a vehicle of prophecy.
It was the presence of supreme holiness that necessitated a stricter ceremonial. The warrior host lived under the rule of the greater holiness, and would thus be for ever excluded from the more informal fashion of drinking; they were never allowed to drink in pairs (tvimenning). The sacred men-at-arms must quaff their cups ritually whenever they assembled, or in other words, their meals were always sacrifices. “It was viking law to drink all together in company, even when they came to a feast,” we are incidentally told. For the same reason, the war-sacred drinking feasts at the king's court were always held with ceremonial strictness of form; the king's retainers were vikings all the year round, and lived constantly before their gods. It is possible that the supreme holiness made itself externally apparent in the use of the divine goblets, so that free intercourse could not take place in the hall as long as they were to the fore and went in the hands of the drinkers.